Collaboration is Key

Five and a half years ago, I established Exemplar Strategic Communications to provide a new strategic vision for education organizations seeking to break through the white noise and have their voices heard.  Building off the the groundbreaking public engagement work done by Dan Yankelovich and Public Agenda, Exemplar focused on outcomes-based approaches to PR and public affairs, seeking to not just promote an issue, but to actually change hearts, minds, and behaviors as we improve the public education tapestry across the nation.

This work was strengthened by a number of related experiences along the way.  As executive director of the Pennsylvania STEM Initiative, I learned the value of building strong networks and promoting communications across a range of audiences.  As executive director of communications and public affairs for the American Institutes for Research, I was reminded of the enormous value of strong data.  And as CEO of ConnCAN, I worked with some of the best in the nation in advancing a strong advocacy agenda centered on equity and school improvement.
In reflecting on these experiences, one thing has been crystal clear.  Community engagement and improvement efforts are only successful through strong collaboration.  Working with others in pursuit of a common goal is king.  And there is nothing more rewarding than succeeding as a team, together driving the sort of change and improvement we seek.
That’s what makes today’s post so special to me.
I am happy to let Eduflack’s readers know that I have decided to join Collaborative Communications Group as a partner and that Collaborative is acquiring Exemplar Strategic Communications.  With the merger, Collaborative stands as the nation’s largest communications and strategic consulting firm focused exclusively on P-12 education issues.
For more than a decade, I have been fortunate enough to work with the terrific team at Collaborative on a range of issues — from principal empowerment to ESEA reauthorization to high school equity.  Founding Partner Kris Kurtenbach, Partner Terri Ferinde Dunham, and the entire Collaborative family have done a tremendous job building an organization that has worked with a veritable who’s who in the educations space, while delivering results that should be the envy of all in the space.
Why is Collaborative so special?  At its heart, Collaborative is passionate about helping improve public education within the United States and across the world through learning and collaboration, and communications management.  The consulting firm does it by focusing on the learning process, placing specific emphasis on connecting networks of people; creating, sharing and using knowledge; and engaging diverse stakeholders to create real solutions aligned to the values of the people affected by them.
Collaborative is probably best known for the work it does in the OST (outside of school time space), building long-term relationships with organizations and funders across the country to advance a national commitment to expanded learning approaches, opportunities, and outcomes. 
I am honored to be joining the Collaborative family, and looking forward to the next chapter in my Choose Your Own Adventure.  At Collaborative, I’ll be focusing on the work I so enjoy — strategic communications, organizational planning, content development, public engagement, and advocacy.  I will also continue to manage my Eduflack soapbox, as well as focus on the two education books (one I’m editing on scientifically-based reading instruction and one I’m writing on reforming education reform) that (cross fingers) will be completed by the end of the calendar year.
Thanks to all who have helped along the way and been a part of my journey to date.  I look forward to fusing collaboration to my education DNA.  Onward!

Racing Locally

This afternoon, the U.S. Department of Education formally announced the latest round of the Race to the Top competition.  After directing significant dollars to states to drive wholesale school improvement efforts and to assessment consortia to develop new tests around Common Core State Standards, ED is back focusing on individual buildings and classrooms.

The latest Race is a competition for $120 million in new funding “to support bold, locally directed improvements in learning and teaching that will directly improve student achievement.”  Full details can be found here.
The local focus is an important one, with ED reminding key decisionmakers that reform and innovation requires local buy-in and classroom-based leadership.  We saw some state RttT apps fall short because of failures in collaboration, but there are strong districts in those states that can and should benefit from an injection of competitive dollars to support their reform efforts.
Right now, ED is casting a large net, stating “The Department plans to support high-quality proposals from applicants across a variety of districts, including rural and non-rural as well as those already in a State with a Race to the Top grant and districts that are not.”
Of course, the devil is always in the details.  With Congress resistant to expand RttT, the $120 million pool can be limiting.  ED officials say the grants will be for four years and will range in value from $4 million to $30 million.  That means two large districts who win the big one could knock out half the pool’s value.  Ain’t that what competition is all about, though?
But the real challenge is giving districts the full four years to use grant dollars appropriately and effectively.  With the average urban superintendent on the job for less than three years, that means we likely will have districts that will have two different supes governing the administration of this award.  While we all know, in theory, that one needs four or five years of good longitudinal data to know if a new program is working, how many districts may look to scuttle their RttT grant when a change comes in the big district chair?
Then again, there are worse things than worrying how you will spend your $4-$30M and if you will do so with fidelity or not.  
As the saying goes, you need to be in it to win it.  Districts planning to apply are asked to submit a letter of intent by August 23.  Final apps are due to the Feds by October 3, with decisions coming in December before we close the books on 2013.

Everything is “High Stakes”

Student assessment has been under assault for years now.  And that assault usually begins with the attack on “high-stakes” tests.

We hated No Child Left Behind because of its high-stakes tests, with student assessments determining whether schools were making adequate yearly progress and ultimately if the school doors would stay open or not.
We hated the current batch of end-of-year “high-stakes” tests offered by the states, particularly now that the student performance numbers are being used by some states (and encouraged by others through NCLB waivers) in their teacher and principal evaluation process.
And we hate the “high-stakes” Common Core Assessments, whenever they come on line, as they blend our fears from both NCLB and state tests and wrap them up into one easy package.
Today, The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss has applied the “high-stakes” label to another target — the SAT and the ACT.  In writing about how Common Core State Standards could <SHUDDER> actually have an impact in all states, even in those that haven’t adopted CCSS, she notes that “Students in every state take the high-stakes college admissions exams, the SAT and the ACT.”
Eduflack understands “high stakes” is a powerful term and it can raise the hackles of everyone from the left who oppose stricter accountability measures to the right which recoils from a greater federal footprint on the local classroom.  And he gets that Strauss is using the phrase as fighting words, hoping to generate continued negative feelings toward CCSS.  But sometimes, can’t a test just be a test?
Aren’t there some assessments that should have some stakes attached?  Shouldn’t high school exit exams be “high stakes” as they determine whether a student has earned a high school diploma or not?  And shouldn’t we want the SAT and ACT to have stakes, as they determine who gains entrance to a four-year college, particularly when the costs of college are about as high stakes as they come?
Tests have consequences.  And all tests should have stakes attached.  Driver’s exams are “high stakes” as they determine if you get a license and have access to the freedom that comes with it.  Eye exams are “high stakes,” particularly when anything less than 20/20 will keep you from becoming a pilot in the Armed Forces.  DNA tests are “high stakes” as they determine one’s family lineage, an essential to knowing your history and your health future. The new Google/Bing taste tests are “high stakes,” as they could determine marketing campaigns and huge swings in search usership. 
So if there are no stakes attached, and some seem to advocate, is it even a test?  

AFT: Parents Resist Reforms

Parents oppose closing low-performing schools, reject the notion of moving resources from traditional public schools to charters, and are resistant to extending the school day, according to a new survey to be released by the American Federation of Teachers today, and previewed by Lyndsey Layton in today’s Washington Post.

According to Layton, the results of a poll of more than 1,000 parents will be a featured part of AFT President Randi Weingarten’s address today at the national AFT TEACH Conference.  Among the highlights:
  • 61% oppose closing low-performing schools and reassigning students to a different school
  • More than 75% oppose reducing compensation for teachers or cutting resources for the classroom while increasing spending on charter schools
  • 58% did not approve of officials lengthening the school day (while a third thought it was a good idea)
  • 56% oppose giving tax dollars to families to pay for private school tuition (better known as vouchers), while 41% approve
  • A majority say too much learning in the classroom has been sacrificed in order to accommodate state tests
Layton also offers this nugget, to be part of Weingarten’s prepared remarks today:
Decades of top-down edicts, mass school closures, privatization and test fixation with sanctions, instead of support, haven’t moved the needle — not in the right direction, at least … You’ve heard their refrain, competition, closings, choice.  Underlying that is a belief that disruption is good and stability is bad.
It sounds like Weingarten is bringing her A game this week and looking to rally the troops as they prepare for Common Core implementation, NCLB waivers, ESEA reauthorization, and the next generation of reforms.  
We’ll look for other key ideas when the full text of the speech is publicly available.  In the meantime, I’m sure many of those closers and privatizers and test fixaters are sharpening their tongues …

An End to Compulsory Education?

A few years ago, we had a number of states that looked to increase the “drop-out age” in their states, under the premise that if we keep kids in high school until the age of 17, we would increase the odds that they would complete their k-12 experience and earn their high school diploma.

Now it seems the pendulum is swinging in the complete opposite direction. Earlier this week, Utah State Senator Aaron Osmond offered up a blog post under the title “Accountability for Parents + Respect for Teachers.”  A great title and a great premise we should all get behind.
But the headline is a little misleading.  Senator Osmond used the platform to call for an end to compulsory education, suggesting that moves in the late 1800s to require all kids to gain an education was the beginning of the end of western civilization.
Some of the “nuggets” from his musings include:

“Before 1890, public
education in America was viewed as an opportunity—not a legal obligation.”

“Then came compulsory
education. Our State began requiring that all parents must send their children
to public school for fear that some children would not be educated because of
an irresponsible parent. Since that day, the proverbial pendulum has swung in
the wrong direction.”

“Our teachers and schools
have been forced to become surrogate parents, expected to do everything from
behavioral counseling, to providing adequate nutrition, to teaching sex
education, as well as ensuring full college and career readiness.”

“Actively engaged parents
sometimes feel that the public school system, and even some teachers, are
insensitive to the unique needs and challenges of their children and are
unwilling or unable to give their child the academic attention they need
because of an overburdened education system, obligated by law to be all things
to all people.”

“We need to restore the
expectation that parents are primarily responsible for the educational success
of their own children. That begins with restoring the parental right to decide
if and when a child will go to public school. In a country founded on the
principles of personal freedom and unalienable rights, no parent should be
forced by the government to send their child to school under threat of fines
and jail time.”

And if that isn’t enough for you, he offers up a support document, The End to Compulsory Education – A Freedom-Based Argument.  That doc is written by a gentleman named Oak Norton who, among other things, heads a group called Utahns Against Common Core.
In this day and age when we know a k-12 education (and some postsecondary) is necessary to success, when we know far too many kids rely on the formal school system to provide them needed social services, when we know we should be investing more time and resources in expanding formal pre-K options, when we know that we should be working to level the playing field and ensure equity for all students, are we really to the point where we want to pull all our kids off the field entirely, and let them fend for themselves in a family-led Lord of the Flies education scenario?
Of all of the problems facing our modern society and all of the challenges and opportunities before our K-12 structure, has ending compulsory education risen high enough on the list that it now warrants state senate review and consideration?

Stereotyping the Teaching Profession

As chairman of a local school board, I was amazed when a constituent was alarmed that our teachers were getting full-time benefits, but were only working “nine months a year.”  Anyone who thinks teaching isn’t a full time job has clearly never lived with an educator.

Yet we do like to promote those stereotypes, don’t we?  Ol’ Eduflack was a little taken aback today by a post on his Facebook feed.  On FB, I follow a number of education-based groups to monitor their social media activities.  I do the same on Twitter.
But on FB today, there was a post from ABCTE, or the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence.  For those in the know, ABCTE is one of the leaders in alternative certification efforts, having spent more than a decade now helping states build alternative streams of teacher candidates.  It was a darling of the George W. Bush Administration, which provided it significant dollars to get off the ground and partner with states across the nation.
At any rate, today’s ABCTE post was about the “rewards” of teaching.  With no citation, ABCTE notes, through feedback from its alumni network, it was able to narrow down the top five rewards for being a public school teacher in the United States.  They are:
  1. Make a difference
  2. Job satisfaction
  3. Salaries and benefits
  4. Schedule
  5. Summers off
Really?  After all we know and all we have seen over the last decade, particularly in recent years as teachers have been under attack from all corners, these are the top rewards for being a teacher?  As benefits have been reduced and salaries have been frozen in so many communities, that’s number 3?  As so many teachers are reported to be frustrated by all of the hours being put in on evenings and weekends and holidays that no one sees, schedule is number four? And as far too many educators seek summer jobs just so they can pay their bills in a profession where salary still doesn’t match impact or importance, summers off is number five?
While this may be the view of ABCTE alums, it doesn’t seem to align with the story we’ve been hearing from the media in recent years.  The tale of teachers resigning because of significant job dissatisfaction, of reductions in force and rollbacks of benefits, of lack of control of one’s schedule, both in the classroom and outside of the school day.
Then again, maybe all those educators are off at the beach, enjoying their summers and looking longingly at their pension statements and their expected paycheck bumps for the coming school year.

An Empowerment Interview

How do we use public education to empower?  While we use the word “empowerment” a great deal in the educational trenches, there seems to be little discussion or understanding of what it actually means and how it truly applies to so many of our engagements.

Over at Education Sector today, Peter Cookson has a great interview with Stanford University’s Linda Darling-Hammond.  In the piece, Darling-Hammond provides a deeper dive into the empowerment issue and how we can use education for empowerment.
Among the nuggets is this one, Darling-Hammond’s thoughts regarding our obsession with international comparisons:

People make wild claims about what other countries do.  So I looked at the high achieving countries … And guess what?  They do a lot to promote equity.  They ensure that children are well taken care of … Even when families have low incomes, there are safety nets to ensure that children are housed, fed, have health care, and access to good early learning opportunities.  They fund schools equitably.  They invest heavily in well-prepared teachers and school leaders for all schools.

ES offers up both a transcript of the interview, as well as a video for those who need the visual stimulation.  Definitely worth a visit.
(Full disclosure: Eduflack has worked with Linda Darling-Hammond on a range of topics for more than a decade.)

A Little Something Something About Timing

Today’s lesson is about timing.  More specifically, it is about how one times the release of announcements so that the media and key stakeholders take notice and hear the actual message that folks want to deliver.

Many of us have heard the tales that if you don’t want someone to know something, announce it over a weekend.  Or announce it over a holiday.  While the 24/7 news environment brought to us by the Interwebz, Twitter, and all those citizen bloggers has changed things somewhat, the rule is still pretty much the same.  
When making a media announcement, one should be mindful that the media, at least those covering education, primarily work the traditional work week.  You can expect them “on duty” from 9 or so in the morning until 6 or 7 in the evenings, Monday through Friday.  Afternoons are usually spent writing on deadline.  Most reporters are, of course, always on call.  But if you want to reach them, starting during those core times is a good first step.
So it is a major headscratcher to see last week’s announcement from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC.  PARCC is one of the two Common Core State Standards consortia, developing a comprehensive summative assessment to measure the K-12 standards adopted through CCSS.  The PARCC tests are seen by some as better aligned with the expectations of the US Department of Education and Race to the Top.
At any rate, late last week PARCC released a statement on the Race to the Top Technical Review and how it charted the RttT Assessment grant progress.  The finding was fairly simply, RttT found that PARCC was “generally on track,” the highest rating possible, according to PARCC.
The concern, though, was the timing of the release.  PARCC sent the announcement out on July 12, 2013, a Friday.  Email announcements were hitting reporter inboxes at 10 p.m. EDT.  So it begs the question, why dump an important and positive announcement late on a Friday night as Cinderella’s coach was turning back into a pumpkin?
Sure, one can chalk it up to bad timing.  To the release getting delayed for some reason unrelated to the announcement.  To delays in the world wide web.  All sorts of technical or manmade issues could be noted.  A cynic could even say that this was dumped late on a Friday night so that few would actually pay attention to it, not wanting to raise attention for the process of the consortia and testing in general at a time when “testing” and “assessment” are dirty words.
Regardless, we need to be a little smarter with our announcements.  PARCC’s announcement (along with the original RttT Assessment announcement) are important developments in our push toward adopting the Common Core and bringing meaningful summative assessments on line.  It deserves more than just the “document dump” treatment.  After all, any reporter wanting to cover this would now likely have to wait until Monday before someone is back in the office at Achieve or PARCC to follow up on the statement.
Nitpicking?  Maybe.  But with so many organizations and announcements jockeying to break through the white noise and have their issues heard by the media, one has to be media-friendly about the announcements.  Late Tuesday or Wednesday mornings are good.  Friday nights after prime time, not so good.  
Or maybe we just don’t want folks to know that PARCC is “generally on track.”

Promoting Assessment Literacy

Testing.  For some, it is the ultimate measure of public education, the rubric by which we determine if our nation, state, district, school, teacher, and student is making the grade.

For others, it is the embodiment of evil.  Bubble sheets.  High-stakes tests.  Stressed students.  Maligned teachers.
The fact of the matter is that testing is largely misunderstood, even by those who can most benefit from it.  Frustrations over assessment efforts under NCLB has led a groundswell of folks to condemn assessment in general.  But in doing so, we are throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.  We are forgetting all of the good that comes from assessment and how it can empower educators when they are given the right data and the power to do something with it.
Hopefully, we will soon see this dialogue start to change.  This week, the Northwest Evaluation Association released a new online tool to engage teachers and encourage a meaningful, fact-based discussion of assessment, its uses, and its impact.  Meet Assessment Literacy.
Why is this new site so important?  Let’s face facts.  Despite all of the talk about testing, many lack a real understanding of the topic.  Some are quick to condemn “assessment” without acknowledging the differences between summative assessment (those state tests we all love) and formative or interim assessments.  We bristle at student test scores being used as part of the teacher evaluation process, but gloss over how meaningful assessment data can be used to improve the teaching and learning process in the classroom.
Anti-testing forces may want to be believe that assessment will go away, that continued discussion of the “high-stakes” variety and recent testing mis-steps by companies like Pearson will do away with testing, but let’s be frank for a second.  Assessment has long been a part of our public education tapestry, and it isn’t going anywhere.  It also can have a valuable and powerful impact on how teachers teach, how students learn, and how all are better for it.  Rather than fighting a “testing or no testing” fight, we should be focusing our efforts on the quality of assessments and their proper applications.
Assessment Literacy starts making progress toward that point.  Developed by and focused on classroom educators, the site provides a fact-based look at assessment and its application.  From discussions on how tests are made, narratives on how major national policy issues address assessment, and a wealth of resources for educators on the topic, the site really strives to get every educator “assessment literate.”
We are in much need of a thoughtful, engaging discussion on assessment and its future in the American classroom.  And we need educators front and center in that discussion.  Assessment Literacy starts that dialogue.  
(Full disclosure: Eduflack has worked with a number of organizations focused on assessment and testing, including NWEA.)